Sunday, 1 November 2015

J Awards

2015 marks the 10th anniversary (11th edition) of Triple J's annual J Award. Instituted ostensibly to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Triple J, the award forms part of Triple J's recognition of Australian music.

With the benefit of hindsight, how well have winners fared? And (more egotistically), how do they compare to my favourites?

2005 - Wolfmother - Wolfmother
The J Awards kicked off by singling out Wolfmother. If the award is designed to reflect the tastes of the station, then this was clearly the correct choice at the time - six songs in the 2005 Hottest 100 countdown (#6 "Mind's Eye ; #9 "Joker and the Thief" ; #16 "Apple Tree" ; #37 "Dimension" ; #39 "Colossal" ; #84 "White Unicorn" ) (with "Woman" placing at #45 in 2004). On top of this it was also the top ranked listener's album that year. Removed from the hype, it still appears popular with Triple J, placing #8 in the Hottest 100 Australian Albums of all time (though conspicuously absent from the industry poll conducted at the same time).

For my two cents, were there any better options?

Notably absent from the nominee list is Karnivool's Themata (#30 in the Hottest 100 Australian albums), not overly surprising as there is only usually room for one hard rock/metal nominee each year. But still, in hindsight a bad miss.

At the time, amongst the nominees, my choice would have gone to Gyroscope's Are You Involved?. A corker of an album, fueled by my love for "Fast Girl" and particularly "Beware Wolf", I was listening to this pretty much every day during late 2005, and ten years later, it is still one of my most listened to albums.

2005 also saw solid albums released from After the Fall (Always Forever Now) and End of Fashion (End of Fashion) both of which contained great radio-friendly singles ("Concrete Boots" , "The Fighter" ; "O Yeah", "The Game") but I'd rank these a step below Gyroscope, Karnivool and Wolfmother.

Having said that, Australian album of the year comes down to Cog's The New Normal and The Drones' Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By. Both of these Australian landmarks were featured in the 2011 Industry poll (#82 for Cog, #24 for The Drones), with The New Normal placing at #50 in the audience poll. In what is essentially a coin-toss (and my decision may change tomorrow), I'd give the edge to Wait long by the River... .

2006 - Hilltop Hoods - The Hard Road
2006 is another year where the Triple J audience taste almost dictated the award winner. Five songs from The Hard Road found their way in to the 2006 Hottest 100 (#3 "The Hard Road" ; #23 "Crown Prince" ; #41 "What a Great Night" ; #56 "Stopping all Stations" ; #77 "Recapturing the Vibe"). Five years later it was still rated highly, placing at #16 in the Hottest 100 Australian albums.

This is another decision that I don't agree with, but I don't think was "bad". If anything, the fact that the Hilltop Hoods crafted an album that was able to appeal to someone like myself with primarily an alternative/rock leaning taste, in the much derided Australian hip hop genre, is something to be applauded.

2006 seems in hindsight to have been quite a strong year for Australian music - with the infectious pop stylings of The Grates (Gravity won't get you high), another offering from The Drones with Gala Mill, the commercial peak from Eskimo Joe (Black Fingernails, Red Wine), the last album from my choice of Luke Steele's projects with The Sleepy Jackson's Personality - One was a Spider, One was a Bird and Augie March's Moo You Bloody Choir, featuring the Hottest 100 topping "One Crowded Hour".

Similar to 2005, my choice has evolved over the years. At the time, I would have opted for The Butterfly Effect's Imago, somehow denied a place among the J Award nominees. I'm not sure I'd argue that it is their best album, but during that time they seemed to be at their peak as one of the foremost live acts to see in Australia. Now, I'd opt for Gotye's Like Drawing Blood, coinciding with what Triple J listeners concluded was the album of the year back in 2006 (and the #11th best Australian album in 2011, before the crossover appeal of "Somebody that I used to know"). I can still recall nodding in shared frustration when I first heard "Thanks for your time" some time in the late 00's.

2007 - The Panics - Cruel Guards
With the 2007 J Award, at the time I thought that the award would go to Silverchair for Young Modern, in recognition of their entire discography, in addition to Young Modern itself (which while now regarded as "disappointing album" at the time was highly acclaimed, containing what many seemed to expect as the likely Hottest 100 #1 with "Straight Lines". Josh Pyke's Memories and Dust was the only album that I could see getting close.

It was something of a surprise to me then, when The Panics took out the award for Cruel Guards. While they had always been a favourite of Richard Kingsmill, they never really registered with me beyond "Don't fight it" (#10 in the Hottest 100). To date, this is the only J Award winning album not to have placed in the top 10 of the yearly best albums poll. Like Wolfmother and The Hard Road it was something of a breakthrough album, but coming after such albums with multiple popular tracks (though acknowledging that a single/song if a completely different concept to an album), Cruel Guards still seems an unexpected choice. 

My personal choice now is the same I had eight years ago: British India's Guillotine. While it was the singles in "Run the Red Light" and "Tie Up My Hands" that got my attention, it was tracks like "Council Flat", "Automatic Pulse", and particularly "Russian Roulette" that have maintained it.

Beyond this, I'd single out the Vasco Era's Oh we do like to be beside the seaside - their live show around this time (I believe I caught them supporting Gyroscope) was fantastic - filled with the contagious energy you'd expect given songs like "When it first showed up".

2008 - The Presets - Apocalypso
2008 was a banner year for Australian albums - you had the debut album from Children Collide (The Long Now) featuring the still catchy singles "Social Currency", "Chose Armies" and "Farewell Rocketship", you had Birds of Tokyo with arguably their best album in Universes (ah, the time before they were a commercial rock station staple), you had the rise to prominence of Eddy Current Suppression Ring with Primary Colours, along with the greatness that is Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Throw in the likes of The Grates, Gyroscope, Augie March, The Butterfly Effect, Trial Kennedy, Mammal, Luke Steele (in the form of Empire of the Sun)... that's a damn fine list.

For the J Award though, I recall there being a school of thought suggesting that Cut Copy would take the award for In Ghost Colours. Highly acclaimed, and highly accessible, this would have made for a worthy pick, particularly if it was seen as time to recognise more electronic music.

Instead, the award went to the Presets. And I don't argue much with this decision. Runner up in the 2008 Albums poll (to Kings of Leon), and placing #7 in the Australian Albums poll - it clearly resonated with Triple J listeners. I would almost go so far as to argue that had "My People" (#18 in 2007) been eligible, it may have usurped "Sex on Fire" from the #1 position in the 2008 countdown (joining #6 "Talk like that" , #8 "This Boy's in love" and #56 Yippiyo-Ay). It even went on to win the ARIA for Album of the Year, the first J Award winner to do so.

However, my personal pick, as with 2005, comes down to Cog and The Drones. To choose between them is like asking to choose between the children that I don't have. On one hand you've got Sharing Space, an album that coincided with so many strong memories of seeing Cog live (even if it meant that "Run" was somewhat dropped from the setlists)... I go against conventional wisdom and prefer it to The New Normal. On the other hand, Havilah  was a revelation for me, with evocative, vivid lyrics as the music stylings switching back and forth effortlessly between acoustic tracks like "You're Actings like the end of the world" and raucous affairs live favourite "The Minotaur". Both are comfortably among my all time favourite albums (be they Australian or not). I guess as I went with Wait Long by the River... for 2005, to balance it up, I'll lean toward Sharing Space here. But not by much.

2009 - Sarah Blasko - As Day Follows Night
Sarah Blasko's acclaimed As Day Follows Night is easily one of the finest albums of 2009. Two tracks placed highly in the Hottest 100 (#28 "We won't run" ; #29 "All I Want"), following on from a #6 placing in the Triple J audience poll. It would subsequently place in both the hottest 100 Australian albums, in both the listener (#59) and industry (#30) lists. It was the only 2009 album to do so (in fact it was the only album from 2009 to make the industry list). All in all it was a great choice, but not my choice.

Using the best representing the Triple J audience taste criteria, The Temper Trap's Conditions would have to be considered the favourite going in. It ranked ahead of As Day Follows Night in the Audience poll (#2 - behind Phoenix's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix). Three of its tracks would subsequently make the hottest 100 (#21 "Fader"; #48 "Science of Fear" ; #58 "Love Lost") while a fourth would have been in contention for the top 5 had it not narrowly missed the 2008 list ("Sweet Disposition" #102 in 2008), and would feature in the 2013 20 years of the hottest 100 countdown (at #38). Looking at the Australian albums list, it even placed at #20. Having said that, there has been criticism of Conditions that it is a collection of great songs (and filler) rather than a great album. I wouldn't fully endorse that ("Science of Fear" is the best song on the album anyway...) but while it is a good album (though I'd place it behind As Day Follows Night), this was an ideal year for Triple J to move away from the audience preference test.

My pick for best Australian album of 2009 is Karnivool's Sound Awake. Unlike Themata, at least this received a nomination, but it was unlikely to win. While songs like "Set Fire to the Hive" and "All I Know" cracked the Hottest 100 (#37 and #63 respectively), Sound Awake is not an easy album to get in to unless you're already a fan (particularly with its running length). But if you give it a chance, it's most certainly worth it.

2010 - Tame Impala - Innerspeaker
For almost every other year I've said "not my choice, but not a bad choice". Not for 2010. Innerspeaker was hands down the best Australian album of the year, and (today at least) is still my favourite Tame Impala album.

The best of the rest? I'd single out Cloud Control's Bliss Release - the album that I thought would take the J Award at the time.

2010 was actually quite a solid year for Australian music - they may not have reached the same peaks of Innerspeaker but albums like British India's Avalanche, Calling All Cars' Hold, Hold, Fire, Children Collide's Theory of Everything, Violent Soho's Violent Soho and Dead Letter Circus' This is the Warning are all worth a visit, containing tracks that found their way in to my Hottest 100 voting shortlist (with "Avalanche", "Hold, Hold, Fire", "My Eagle", "Jesus Stole My Girl Friend" and "Big" respectively).

2011 - Gotye - Making Mirrors
Gotye was pretty much everywhere in 2011. Huge mainstream success, #1 song in the Hottest 100 (and probably the only time that the Triple J and 4zzz countdowns matches at the top spot, #1 by a record margin the audience poll for album of the Year. Three other tracks made the Hottest 100 - "Eyes Wide Open" (#25 in 2010) ; "I Feel Better" (#34) "In Your Light" (#87).  Making Mirrors would go on to even win the Grammy for Best Alternative Album. This was probably an easy choice at the time. And back in 2011, I would have agreed.

Four years later, the Australian albums that I listen to most which were released during 2011 are those from Calling All Cars and Ball Park Music.

Dancing with a Dead Man is Calling All Cars highest peaking album on the ARIA charts (#20) and represents the closest to date that Calling All Cars have come to making the Hottest 100 ("Reptile" at #165) (though they should have several entries in the list). A high quality rock band, with a great live presence... I cannot overstate how much they deserve success.

Of the two, Ball Park Music's debut Happiness and Surrounding Suburbs is a better fit with the Triple J "sound" with their indie rock styling (also being awared the 2011 Unearthed artist of the year). Happiness... also placed at #10 in the audience poll, with two of its tracks making the Hottest 100 that year (#31 "It's nice to be alive" ; #38 "All I want is you").

2012 - Tame Impala - Lonerism
With Lonerism Tame Impala became the first (and to date, only) artist to win the J Award for album of the year twice. And as with 2010, I completely agree.

The Rubens (The Rubens), 12 Foot Ninja (Silent Machine), The Medics (Foundations), Parkway Drive (Atlas), Ball Park Music (Museum) and DZ Deathrays (Bloodstreams) all released outstanding albums (some of these would have been my choice in most other years) bu I'm not going to argue with Triple J here (well, aside from The Medics, 12 Foot Ninja and DZ Deathrays all missing out on nominations).

2013 - Flume - Flume 
In some ways, to me it seems that Flume really shouldn't have won in 2013. It probably should have won in 2012 (or lost to Tame Impala in 2012). Three of it's tracks placed in the 2012 countdown (#4 "Holdin' On" ; #12 "Sleepless" ; #67 "On Top"), and it placed at #7 in the 2012 Audience Poll. However, being released in early November 2012, it was eligible for the 2013 J Award, rather than 2012. My recollection is that it was pretty much a sure thing for the next twelve months (at least that's how I see it). It is still a great album - and being an electronic album that I like and listen to frequently, it is also highly accessible.

Violent Soho's Hungry Ghost and Dick Diver's Calendar Days would be the two albums that I'd single out as the most glaring omissions from the nominee shortlist (see also FasterLouder). Dick Diver don't get a huge amount of play on Triple J (#731 most played artist per JPlay), and links to the station, as FasterLouder noted, would be somewhat awkward. But as they also noted, it's an excellent album. Violent Soho... I have no real idea how that missed out? It also didn't place in the listeners top 10 albums (the only Australian artist to do so was Boy and Bear), but at least "Covered in Chrome" made the Hottest 100 (#14).

The album that should have won the 2013 J Award was The Drones' I See Seaweed. Yeah, it may not truly reflect the triple j audience (no songs in the hottest 100, didn't make the audience albums poll), but it was the finest Australian album of 2013, and one of the best albums of the 2010s.

2014 - Chet Faker - Built on Glass

Using that reflecting the audience criteria, Chet Faker is the deserving winner for 2014. #1 on the audience albums list. Most songs in the hottest 100, including the #1 song ("Talk is Cheap"), with two more in the top 10 (#7 "Gold" ; #8 "1998") ("Melt" was also #65 in 2013, with a like a version cover of "(Lover) You Don't Treat Me No Good No More" placing at #21. That's really getting to Powderfinger circa 2000-2003 level popular (Powderfinger in 2003 with #4 "On My Mind" ; #7 "Sunsets" ; and #10 "Love Your Way" being the only other artist to have three songs in the top 10). "Gold" is a great song, and I really like Chet Faker's collaboration with Flume ("Drop the Game - #5 in 2013), but I never really saw all of this coming. Maybe a sign I'm more in the Double J audience than Triple J?

2014 seems to have been a great year for Australian music. It holds the record for the most Australian songs to feature in the hottest 100 (59), including 8 of the top 10. Similarly, on the audience albums list, 8 of the 10 albums featured were Australian. Albums that I enjoyed - Total Control's Typical System, Hilltop Hood's Walking Under Stars, Calling All Cars' Raise the People would be among the top picks.

But the stand out was DZ Deathrays' Black Rat. "Gina Works at Hearts" featured in the Hottest 100 (#88), slightly lower than I anticipated, but there was no place for it in the audience list, nor the J Award shortlist. Genre bias? Maybe it's the sonic shifts between songs like "Gina" and "Less Out of Sync" and other like "Northern Lights" and "Keep Myself on Edge", but Black Rat is an album I'm enjoying the more I listen to it, and I've listened to it a lot since over the past twelve months or so.

Given all of that, while the choices that Triple J have made haven't been my choice, they haven't necessarily been bad choices - most have been excellent albums that would make my shortlist. On the whole, they do tend to represent their target audience (which is likely one of the driving criteria) which can't overly be faulted. There are some legitimate observations to make around the lack of gender diversity on Triple J (though there are likely broader reasons for this beyond Triple J), though if I was deciding the award each year, the diversity would be less (all male fronted acts, mostly bands, repeats for Tame Impala and The Drones), though the Australian progressive rock bands from the mid 00's (and beyond) in part would have received their due.

Looking ahead for the 2015 award, pre any nomination announcement, I'd be pencilling in Courtney Barnett for the win, with nominations for Parkway Drive (and possible Northlane) and Tame Impala. While Currents is possibly the most acclaimed Australian album of 2015, I can't see Tame Impala winning a third.

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